By Leslie Lindsay
Completely engaging and totally immersive read about a woman’s journey to find her long-lost love, but what she finds is completely different from what she imagined.
~WRITERS INTERVIEWING WRITERS|ALWAYS WITH A BOOK~
May Spotlight: Mothers & Mental Health/Illness
When Carolyn Tanner flees her unhappy marriage for a cross-country trip to find her long-lost ‘true love’ Peter, she’s in for a bumpy ride. I loved SO HAPPY TOGETHER (published by SWP April 20 2021). I wasn’t sure what to expect with this one–would it be sappy? Sad? Mysterious? Too light? I was completely gobsmacked with SO HAPPY TOGETHER, which is told from the POV of a smart, feisty, and instantly likable wife/mother/writer.
Carolyn Mills-Tanner’s stultifying marriage and life as a harried mother is wearing thin. Her three children–ranging in ages from 8 to 14, are heading to summer camp and Carolyn now has the opportunity to travel cross-country to find her first love, Peter MacKinley, from her days as a drama major at the University of Arizona. She leaves a ‘Dear John’ note for her husband of nearly twenty years and off she goes.
Traversing several decades, but set ultimately in two distinct time periods, the tumultuous drugs/free love 1960s and the suburban 1980s, SO HAPPY TOGETHER weaves together kooky, colorful drama student antics, sexual attraction, sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll, the creative life, and more.
I loved how SO HAPPY TOGETHER was told mostly in backstory–there were a few flashes to ‘present day’ where we’d get a sense of where Carolyn was on her journey, but for the most part the ‘front story’ is told in active retrospect. Carolyn is a slightly goody-two-shoes half- Jewish college freshman from Vermont on her own for the first time miles away in Arizona when she meets Peter MacKinley, a wholesome farm boy from North Dakota. The attraction is immediate.
In the 1980s, Carolyn is married to Jack, a promising and attractive lawyer, but he’s more focused on appearances. Does Carolyn have the ‘right’ nose, will she wear the yellow dress to the club, will she dye her hair, show up for the PTA events?
These characters are so engaging, so likable, so flawed. I loved them all, for different reasons. Here, there’s wit and sympathy, intelligence, and big issues like drugs, sex, freedom, independence, war, AIDS, mothers and mothers-in-law, therapy, and more. There are some graphic sex scenes and others involving getting high, stoned, etc. that may be a turn-off for some, but it’s completely organic to the story.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Deborah Shepherd to the author interview series:
Deborah, welcome! I really devoured SO HAPPY TOGETHER and I’m so thrilled to chat with you about it. I always want to know what ‘haunted’ writers into their stories, but for you, I think I have an inkling. You are a first-time novelist at 74! You wrote portions of this book years ago, shoved it in a closet, and now, here we are. Can you walk us through that process? What have you been doing for the last thirty-plus years?
Thank you so much, Leslie. I’m so excited to be chatting with you as well. As you mentioned, I started the first draft of SO HAPPY TOGETHER years ago: 34 years to be exact. At the time, my first marriage was unravelling, we were having financial difficulties, we had been renovating our house for years and still lived in a construction site, my older child was a teenager and my younger child thought she was. I started having “what if” fantasies: What if I’d made different choices? What if I could find my first love (but still have the same kids, of course)? What if I had a second chance? What if I could escape? But I didn’t bolt, Instead, I wrote a story about a woman who did. I wrote it at night, on my kitchen table, typing on a Brothers’ word processor while my children and soon-to-be ex were asleep. When I typed “The End,” I found the name of a New York publisher, put the manuscript in a box, and sent it off, without running it by an editor, proofreader or agent first. The box came back a few weeks later, and with one rejection, I decided I wasn’t a writer after all, so I put it in a cardboard carton and shoved it to the back of my closet, and then it followed me through multiple moves. All in all, the manuscript sat in one closet or another for thirty years. I never looked at it. In the interim, I got a divorce, went to graduate school and earned an MSW, fell in love and married again, and became the director of two non-profits, the first in New Jersey and the second in Maine. I was writing all those years, but in a different capacity: numerous grant applications, detailed reports, op-ed pieces, etc., all connected with my job. When I retired, I swore I’d never write anything longer than a grocery list.
This whole manuscript-in-the-closet thing is something that maybe rarely happens. What was it about SO HAPPY TOGETHER that really compelled you forward?
I didn’t have any clear plans on what I was going to do–after retirement–other than work in my garden, spend time with my grandsons, and learn French. After a while, though, I started making notes for a novel. I told my husband and he suggested I exhume the first novel to see if I could incorporate parts of it into the new manuscript. He figured it might save me some work (which didn’t prove to be true. The rewrites took me as long or longer than writing that first draft).
I rummaged in the back of the closet, found the box, read the manuscript and discovered it wasn’t so bad after all. I retyped it on the computer and did some editing while I was at it.
I think what some of this speaks to is perspective. Age. Wisdom. Sometimes when we’re younger, we don’t have the headspace for insights. Do you think this process allowed you to be more thoughtful about the manuscript?
Oh, definitely. On reading it 30 years after it had been written, I saw its potential, but realized it needed more work. There are a lot of writers living in Maine and the state is very supportive of its literary community, so I signed up for workshops run by the non-profit, Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, and met my developmental editor when she was leading one of these sessions. We clicked immediately and she helped me get to the emotional core of the story, which focuses on a woman who turns 40, whose marriage is unraveling and who has lost her creative spark. She feels that if she finds her first love, she will also find the creative person she used to be. The more I worked with my editor, the less peripheral my main character became in her own life, and as the story evolved over several drafts, she became not just a person who is acted upon, but one who takes charge of her life. And my social work career had a bearing on the transformation, as well. In working with survivors who had had their voices silenced by abuse, my colleagues and I helped them help themselves to find agency again. Although Caro, my main character, was not in an abusive marriage, she was “complicit in her own erasure,” as she says. Re-writing the book was a long process, and sometimes I chafed at all the work, but ultimately, I’m so happy I kept at it.
You know, there’s this idea that all fiction is about ourselves. We call it fiction because, I don’t know…we’re afraid of the truth? Do you subscribe to the belief that fiction is mined from our experiences? As a writer myself, I kind of do. Even my fiction is rooted in truth.
Well, I do believe that fiction is mined from our experiences. Some of my experiences inspired me, but much of the situation and the story are definitely products of my imagination. Some of the characters are based on people I knew, or composites of people I knew, and some of the dialogue is similar to conversations I remembered, and some of the words spoken by Caro’s children were lifted right from things I’d heard my kids say (because I was one of those moms who compulsively wrote down every adorable thing they uttered—and that came in handy all these many years later).
And, of course, because real people were the models for some of the composite characters, I had to be very careful—careful beyond the disclaimer at the front of the book. I had one friend, for instance, who had a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and that was something we didn’t really talk about back then. The friend was not the model for Peter, per se, but I did touch on some of these manifestations of mental illness and ascribe them to his character. Thankfully, talking openly about mental health issues is more of a norm now.
And, I guess, letting the manuscript sit for over 30 years provides a certain distance from actual events involving actual people.
I think you hit on a universal theme in SO HAPPY TOGETHER and that is: everyone is curious about their first love. It must be hardwired, or something. Not everyone is going to jump in their car and track them down, though, like Carolyn did. Maybe it has something to do with the unencumbered time period or that heady feeling of falling in love…can you expand on that a bit, please?
Well, one interesting thing about Caro is that in the discontent of her marriage, she starts fantasizing about her first love, and when she has a nightmare about him, she’s convinced that it’s a sign he still needs her. And, somehow, pre-cell phone, pre-social media, her pull toward Peter is so strong, she believes he’s still where he was the penultimate time she saw him, twenty years before, at his home in North Dakota. Is she just a little bit delusional, or are you right about it being hardwired, Leslie? And Caro did rationalize that she wasn’t leaving her children, because they would be at sleepaway camp for the summer, but she didn’t really plan for what might happen after she found her heart’s desire. I think she was guided by passion, hope, and the steadfast belief that she would also find her authentic self again.
“Many of us waste years fantasizing about a lost love, but the feisty heroine in So Happy Together takes to the road to track him down. This compelling novel is about how a smart and lusty drama student in the tumultuous ’60s discovers twenty years later that she’s trapped in a failing marriage. Shepherd’s engaging characters make mistakes, hurt, and lash out, yet ultimately clean up the mess with kindness and humor. Their search for understanding is what ultimately sets them free.”
―Elizabeth Garber, author of Implosion: A Memoir of an Architect’s Daughter
What three things can you not stop thinking or talking about? It doesn’t have to be literary.
Well, I guess I’m going to be that cliché grandmother who can’t stop thinking about her grandchildren (I hope I don’t talk about them to excess). But I think about them vis a vis what’s going on in the world and that’s concerning. My grandsons are 13 and 11 and are just about to complete a year of virtual school, with little to no face-to-face interaction with their peers. And I worry about the toll the pandemic has taken on the social/emotional health of all our children. Eventually, they’ll catch up academically, but I think the long-term mental health effects may be with us long after the pandemic is over (and I have to believe that it will be over). And I think about the myriad problems of the world we will be leaving the next generations– racism and all the other -isms, poverty, social injustice, the climate crisis– and I hope we can give the kids wise enough guidance for them to navigate these problems and become part of the solution.
I also think—with pleasure– about my gardens (vegetable and flower). We have a very short growing season here in Maine, so when we’re not actually gardening (like in the winter, which often extends from October well into April) we’re salivating over seed catalogues (known in these parts as “garden porn”). Last year, we had a major snowstorm on April 10, just after we’d removed the protective mulch from the tender garlic shoots, so my husband and I were out there with pitchforks at dusk, re-covering the beds with straw. We had about a foot of snow, but the garlic survived. This summer, my son is getting married in our backyard, so my focus for now is filling all the flower beds to excess, to compensate for the tulip bulbs the squirrels ate over the fall and winter.
The other thing that has occupied by mind (and my friends are probably tired of hearing me talk about it) is the process of getting a book out into the world. I expected the hard work of writing, because I’ve written in one capacity or another almost from the time I could form my letters. I wrote a play in college that garnered national attention (and is so cringe-worthy and just plain awful that I’ve destroyed any remaining copies); I was a reporter for two newspapers back in the day before I earned my graduate degree; I wrote reviews of country inns for a travel guide (before Yelp and Home Away made those tomes obsolete) and tried to think of more descriptors than “quaint” and “charming.” In my capacity as director of several non-profit agencies, I wrote constantly, be it grant applications or reports to my board, or letters to the editor of The New York Times. And, often, writing was hard. But nothing prepared me for how hard it is to publicize and market a book, particularly the technological/social media aspects of birthing my novel. Sometimes, it’s like being in a foreign country where not only do I not speak the language, but I don’t even recognize the alphabet. I think this is especially difficult for older people like myself, who didn’t grow up with the technology and its vocabulary: I had to ask one of my grandsons to help me set up my Facebook author page. Fortunately, I’ve found super competent people to help me with all this. And one of the upsides of technology? I recently wrote a guest blog that focused on the music either mentioned in my novel or that had something to do with the inspiration for the book, and now I have my very own Spotify Playlist, something I’d never even heard of until recently. I am getting the biggest kick out of that.
Deborah, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us. Is there anything I forgot to ask, or anything you’d like to ask me?
Wow, we’ve covered a lot. I guess the only other thing I might mention is about honoring your creative spark, no matter your age. When I finally signed the contract with my publisher, She Writes Press, I went on a little bit of an ego trip– publishing my first novel at 74, and “wasn’t-that-special-and-unique” kind of thing. And then I was introduced to some of my sister authors and realized there were plenty of women my age or older who were writing their first or second books and, in one case, an author who had written three books and was contemplating writing her fourth—at 90! So, I guess what I’d like to leave people with is this: Whenever possible, follow your creative path—whether that means writing a story, or creating visual art, or composing that song you were always going to get around to. I’ve never regretted giving my novel a second chance. And, just in case I forget—as I dive into the first draft of my next project, a memoir—I’ve kept the box that SO HAPPY TOGETHER lived in all those years, as a happy reminder that I’m still a creative being.
Thanks so much for these thoughtful questions, Leslie. I so enjoyed talking with you.
Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow on Instagram @leslielindsay1 #alwayswithabook #amreading #bookstagram
For more information, to connect with Deborah K. Shepherd, or to purchase a copy of SO HAPPY TOGETHER, please visit:
- Support your local in-person bookstore or order through Bookshop.org
- This title may also be available through other online sellers.
- See all books in the May 2021 author interview series on mothers/mental illness HERE.
- For all books with a mental health/illness theme featured on Always with a Book, please visit my Bookshop.
YOU MIGHT LIKE:
SO HAPPY TOGETHER reminded me, in part of the work of Jennifer Weiner, particularly in MRS. EVERYTHING, but also slightly reminiscent of the writing of Sally Hepworth, Dan Pope’s HOUSEBREAKING . Also, if we’re talking 1980s sitcoms, a touch of Family Ties.
- For all books with a mental health/illness theme featured on Always with a Book, please visit my Bookshop.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Before her retirement in 2014, DEBORAH K. SHEPHERD was the executive director of a domestic violence resource center in central Maine. Her essays have been published on herstryblg.com (“A Love Letter to Our Marriage Therapist”), persimmontree.org (“Light”), womenonwriting.com, (“The Long Haul”), booksbywomen.org (“Why Did You Write That Scene?), and her covid-theme essay, “Snow Day, Maine, April 10, 2020,” was a winner in the Center for Interfaith Relations Sacred Essay Contest. An excerpt from her novel has appeared on BLOOM. During an earlier career as a reporter, she wrote for Show Business in New York City and the Roe Jan Independent, a weekly newspaper in Columbia County, New York, and also freelanced as a travel writer. She holds a BFA in drama from the University of Arizona and an MSW from Fordham University’s Graduate School of Social Service. Deborah is the mother of two adult children and grandmother of two, and lives with one husband and two dogs on the coast of Maine. Find her online at deborahshepherdwrites.com.
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the creator and host of the award-winning author interview series,“Always with a Book.” Since 2013, Leslie, named “one of the most influential book reviewers” by Jane Friedman, ranks in the top 1% of all GoodReads reviewers and has conducted over 700 warms, inquisitive conversations with authors as wide-ranging as Robert Kolker and Mary Kubica to Helen Phillips and Mary Beth Keane, making her website a go-to for book lovers world-wide. Her writing & photography have appeared in literary journals and online. She is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA: A Parents’ Guide to Childhood Apraxia of Speech, soon to be released as an audio book by Penguin Random House. She is represented by Catalyst Literary Management.
Leslie’s memoir, MODEL HOME: Motherhood, Madness & Memory is currently on-submission.
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Cover and author image courtesy of author and used with permission. Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow on Instagram @leslielindsay1 #alwayswithabook #amreading #bookstagram